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  • Frederike Schmitz

Meet Didi and her family

Sketching out my protagonist: Didi, the dendritic cell

When I started writing the story, I needed a protagonist and a couple of cells which would get a part of the story.

Here again I let science guide me.

I literally took an immunology book and looked at the family tree that most books show.

This family tree tells you how one cell relates to the other one. Which cell is derived from which ancestor cell?

All of them are coming from with one common stem cell. The mother of all mothers, so to speak.

Looking at this picture, I realized that they all needed to be sisters and brothers. Because this is literally what they are.

But who would be my protagonist? Which cell is the most important immune cell of all?

That’s a tough one. Because this doesn’t exist.

But what I soon realized is that it often starts with a cell which would pick up an invader and travel far to warn other cells. This cell is the starting point of the whole story, so to speak.

Very often this function is done by dendritic cells.

A dendritic cell, my protagonist.

Going through the story in my mind I realized which cells needed to be included- according to what had to happen and what I wanted to talk about. And all the rest of them, I left out.

There are simply way too many immune cell types in our body, to name them all. All with crucial functions, don’t get me wrong- that’s why they are there. But too many to make up a clear and compelling story.

Now here is my dendritic cell, I call her Didi.

She plays an important part in the story. She is the one who has to decide on how to react. What is the situation at hand? Does she need to call for help? However important she is for the story, she herself is not really aware of her crucial role. After all, she is not an expert like the other cells.

She is a very curious, little cell. She feels the urge to explore new things. This feeling is so much stronger than her fear. Even when something bad happens and she is warned by other cells around her, she can’t resist the urge to find out what is happening. It will be fine, she tells herself.

The experts, these are other cells. Ben, the B cell who can make darts (you can guess it.. antibodies) which can stick to the invader, because they are specifically tailored to them. Tess, the T cell who can kill infected cells with her poisonous weapons. And lots more.

All of them have a place in the story- all of them are based on science.

As close to science as they can be, but not more than that.

After all they also need to express emotions, have feelings and talk to each other.

That’s not what real immune cells do.

But that is what is needed for them to come alive. For a story to exist.

I don’t know how you would feel about it, but I found this the hardest part of the whole story.

To breathe life into these weird creatures. To give them a face and a character.

If you have ever tried to imagine a completely new character you can probably understand how difficult this is. Often you start off with an idea and then along the way they develop into their full-blown character.

Creating characters is a craft- I understand this now.

Because I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly good at it, either.

I read a lot online about how to do this properly. How one for example should write a backstory to your characters you designed, to fully get to know them.

As a writer you don’t have to talk about all of this information, but it helps you to place them in the here and now and give them enough depth. They have a history- at least in your mind.

To create a character which is fully based on science is even harder.

Didi pretty much needed to be curious and wanting to explore because this is what she has to do, to get the whole story started. I guess this part of her character is in that way born out of necessity.

She needs to decide what to do next. Now she could be totally sure about her role or she could have doubts. That’s up to me to decide. But a cell which has doubts and second thoughts about her actions make up a better story.

As easy as that.

It’s gets more complicated for the other characters though.

There is a natural killer cell, for example. My husband’s favorite cell. Well, I guess the one single reason for that is her awesome name.

Don’t you think so?

She is a natural born killer. And like her name suggests she can kill. Cells.

In my story she is called Nahla.

But then there is also the real expert in killing. Tess. She is a cytotoxic T cell. Meaning a cell which can kill other cells. She’s toxic to cells (cytotoxic). She kills with poison.

What is the difference between these two? Well, lots. Scientifically speaking.

But also, when it comes to their characters in the story, they needed different features.

One could be meticulous and therefore not really fast-moving. She does kill cells but does this one-by-one. Cautiously. Slowly.

That’s Nahla. She is one of the front-line cells. The ones which come into the story early on. Cells like Nahla are there first but are there to mainly save time. They are innate cells.

Then there is Tess, a T cell.

Or as immunologists would call her, an adaptive cell. She comes in later. But she is much better at what she does. So, in the story she needed different skills and a different character to reflect this.

Writing about this process here really makes me realize how much thought went into all these details. While writing, I learned so much.

Would I have known what it takes, I think I would have never started.

Have you experienced something similar?

Or do you think about writing a story, a book maybe- but don’t know how to start?

Well, I can tell you sometimes it’s good to just naively start and learn along the way.

Sometimes it’s good to just jump into the cold water. Excuse me, this is a literal translation from a German saying.

Did I mention that I’m German?

Yet I’m writing in English.

Why am I doing this?

Well, I had to read so much (English) science literature that I basically thought it would be easier if I just write the whole thing in English.

To make things even more confusing, I am German but live in the Netherlands for many years now.

I could also write this story in Dutch. Well, in theory.

I do speak Dutch but writing and writing well in Dutch? No way.

So, this left me with English and German. English won.

This probably also has to do with the bad grades I got in German during High School. I know it’s probably a cliché, but high school really made a long-lasting impression on me in terms of what I think I’m good at and what not.

What I learned back then is that I’m not good at German.

This is probably one of the main reasons I chose science. I could hold on to facts. It seemed much more objective. Either it’s correct or it’s wrong.

With language it’s a different. Suppose you’re bad at it (like I probably was). If you study hard to get better, would anybody notice? And if so, based on what?

Well, once I made a bad impression in my German class, I got that label for the rest of my school career.

Yet I hope I can bring these two subjects back together here.

A story about science.

Maybe my writing is good enough to make science, immunology in particular, more vivid and relatable to you.

If that is the case, I feel like I already succeeded.

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